Woman with skin rash on arm wondering about the early signs of HIV in women and men

What Are Early Signs of HIV in Men and Women?

Medically reviewed on Oct 20, 2023 by Neka Miller, PhD. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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Looking into early signs and symptoms associated with HIV can feel overwhelming, particularly if you’re worried you’ve contracted it. Early signs of HIV typically overlap between genders: they’re similar to the flu, though they can encompass a broad variety of early HIV symptoms in men and women. [1]

That said, down the line, undiagnosed or untreated HIV can result in reproductive health consequences that impact the sexes differently. Signs of HIV in women frequently include menstrual cycle dysregulation and certain types of vaginal infections. [2] On the other hand, up to 20% of male cases of HIV result in a hormonal disorder known as hypogonadism. [3]

If you’re concerned you may have HIV or any symptom associated with it, the good news is that early detection is the best way to reduce your risk of reproductive and other health complications later. In fact, understanding HIV transmission and the various ways HIV can manifest is a fundamental step in diagnosing and treating HIV properly.

HIV: A Brief Overview

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a sexually transmitted virus that spreads through exposure to certain body fluids—like genital secretions or blood. [4] HIV transmission can also occur from a mother to a child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. [5]

HIV attacks and impairs the body’s immune cells, which weakens the immune system and can eventually progress to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if it isn’t treated. [6] AIDS can be a life-threatening condition, particularly if HIV treatment is not initiated promptly, which is why HIV testing is crucial for protecting your health. [6]

HIV infection passes through an earlier stage before the development of AIDS: acute HIV, the period right after the infection begins. If untreated, the infection progresses to chronic HIV (which may or may not have noticeable symptoms) and ultimately AIDS. [6]

Early Signs and Symptoms of HIV

How long does it take to show symptoms of HIV? Some people experience flu-like symptoms, like muscle aches or joint pain, at the start of an HIV infection. These early HIV symptoms usually develop within 2 to 4 weeks in an infected person and may last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. [7] This early stage of the viral infection is known as an acute HIV infection. [1]

Common symptoms that may manifest during this time if you contract HIV include [8]:

  • Fever – What’s usually the first sign of HIV for an HIV-positive person? Fever is at the top of the list—it’s one of the most common initial signs of an HIV infection. You may also experience headaches.
  • Fatigue – Wondering why you are feeling so tired all the time? Those who feel fatigued early on in the HIV infection might feel winded or out of breath while walking or performing daily tasks.
  • Skin rash – Skin rashes can occur as both early and later symptoms of HIV. An HIV rash can be itchy, reddish, and painful. In some cases, the skin rashes look like boils that are itchy with pink breakouts. The HIV rash can also appear as a flat red area on the skin covered with small bumps.
  • Swollen lymph nodes or swollen glands, mainly on the neck – Swollen lymph nodes develop when your body fights infections. Lymph nodes can swell in the neck, armpits, and groin—and lead to aches and pains.
  • Weight loss – Flu-like symptoms and digestive distress can result in weight loss for many in early HIV onset.
  • Sore throat and cough – A sore throat and a severe, dry cough can occur, as well. Many people with HIV also find mouth sores or ulcers that are painful to the touch. If you have an HIV-related sore throat, or other symptoms related to HIV, it's best to consult a healthcare provider to learn what steps to take next.
  • Chills or night sweats – Night sweats can happen both as an early and later HIV symptom.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the most common symptoms associated with the early stage of HIV can also be caused by other health conditions—not just HIV.

In other words, if you’re experiencing these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have HIV. STI testing and consulting with your healthcare provider can be helpful next steps to take to rule out HIV as the cause of your symptoms.

Does HIV Affect Men and Women Differently?

Symptoms of HIV can vary widely from person to person, regardless of the affected person’s gender. HIV progresses through several stages in the course of its manifestation [1]:

  • Acute HIV infection
  • Chronic HIV infection
  • AIDS

At the early or acute stage of infection, HIV usually presents similarly in both sexes with flu-like symptoms. [1] However, people assigned female at birth and people assigned male at birth who are HIV-positive may notice distinct reproductive signs and symptoms in the course of living with the illness.

HIV Symptoms in Women and People Assigned Female at Birth

Symptoms of HIV in women can manifest in several prevalent reproductive health conditions. The most common ones include [9]:

  • Menstrual irregularities – Amenorrhea (absent period), skipped periods, and menstrual cycle irregularity are common in women who have HIV.9 You may also notice changes in your menstrual blood flow (either heavier lighter or heavier bleeding) or exaggerated symptoms of PMS. [9]
  • Vaginal yeast infections (vaginal candidiasis) – Recurring vaginal yeast infections—defined as having 4 or more yeast infections in a single year—are highly common in women diagnosed with HIV. [9] They also tend to be more resistant to treatment, particularly in progressed cases of HIV. [9]
  • Bacterial vaginosis (BV)Bacterial vaginosis signifies a disturbance in the bacterial cultures in the vagina. It’s very common in women with HIV, and the infection can make it much more difficult to treat. [9]

n addition to these reproductive concerns, women with HIV have a higher risk of developing several other reproductive health conditions. These include [9]:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Abnormal pap smear results
  • Genital ulcers

If you have HIV as an older woman, you may also notice earlier-onset menopause or more severe menopausal symptoms. You may also be at higher risk of developing osteoporosis (bone density loss). [9]

HIV Symptoms in Men and People Assigned Male at Birth

The main reproductive concern for men carrying HIV is secondary hypogonadism.10

Hypogonadism is a hormonal condition where the body can’t produce sufficient testosterone on its own. Secondary hypogonadism can be one of the symptoms of HIV in men if undiagnosed, though it’s also possible to develop it from a number of other health conditions. [10]

It’s currently estimated that around 20% of men diagnosed with HIV have hypogonadism. [3] It can present with a broad range of symptoms; these tend to vary depending on your age.

If you’re an adult male living with hypogonadism, you may notice [10]:

  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low mood or depressive symptoms
  • Low libido
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Fertility issues
  • A decrease in muscle mass
  • A decrease in hair growth (face and body)
  • Extra breast tissue on the chest

Hypogonadism may also result in osteoporosis, which is estimated to impact as many as 30% of people with hypogonadism caused by HIV. [3] Healthcare providers will typically treat this hormonal disorder with hormonal therapy. [10]

Who Is at Risk for HIV?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who engage in unprotected sex, have multiple sexual partners, or use intravenous drugs are at an increased risk of contracting the HIV virus.

In addition, individuals who have a sexually transmitted infection (STI), have a history of STIs, or are sexually active with someone who is HIV-positive are also at risk. It's important to get tested for HIV if you are at risk or think you may have been exposed.

Testing for HIV

If you have had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner, it’s important to get tested. You can do this from the comfort and privacy of home with the Everlywell HIV Test.

It’s a good idea to be aware of AIDS symptoms, as well, which can include:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Recurring fever
  • Night sweats
  • Lethargy
  • Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
  • Pneumonia
  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids

Treatment for HIV

HIV treatment has come a long way in recent years, allowing those with the virus to live longer, healthier lives. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the most common treatment for HIV and involves taking HIV medication daily to suppress the virus and prevent it from progressing.

It's important to start HIV medication and treatment as soon as possible after an HIV diagnosis. According to the CDC, early treatment can help people with HIV live nearly as long as those who do not have the virus.

Check for HIV From Home With the Everlywell HIV Test

While HIV is a lifelong condition, the acute stage of HIV infection is the most responsive to treatment. By understanding early signs of HIV in men and women, you can take proactive HIV prevention measures and get tested.

Fortunately, you can test for HIV discreetly and in the privacy of your own home with our At-Home HIV Test Kit. Only a small sample of blood is required (collected via a simple finger prick), and your results are easy to view on our secure, online platform.

If you do test positive for HIV, be sure to mention this as soon as possible to your healthcare provider and learn from them what HIV medicine and/or HIV prevention treatments they may recommend.


References
  1. The stages of HIV infection. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  2. How does HIV impact women’s health? HIV.gov. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  3. Hypogonadism and bone health in men with HIV - the lancet HIV. November 2020. URL. Accessed October 10, 2023.
  4. How is HIV transmitted? HIV.gov. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  5. HIV and pregnancy: Protecting mother and child. HIV.gov. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  6. HIV and AIDS: The basics. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  7. About HIV/AIDS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 30, 2022. AURL. ccessed October 9, 2023.
  8. Early HIV symptoms: What are they? Mayo Clinic. January 11, 2023. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  9. How does HIV impact women’s health? HIV.gov. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
  10. Male hypogonadism. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed October 9, 2023.
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